The Power of His Promise

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God’s promises are like Earth’s gravity.  Whether you throw diamonds in the air or dog turds in the air, both will be pulled ground-ward by the the inexorable tug of gravity.  That’s my cheery Advent thought.

Long ago God promised a couple of infertile Semitic retirees that He’d bless the all families of the planet through their offspring.  And for hundreds of years after they laughed at God’s outlandish promise, it seemed they were right.  It was laughable.  Laughable for anyone who saw the cheaters, the backbiters, the flawed leaders, the exiled, occupied nation that slowly emerged from the son that couple eventually had.  A blessing to all the families of earth?  Seriously?

And then Jesus was born.  The one who calls himself the “Amen”,[1] the one of whom Paul says, “all the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in Him.”[2]  But the process of getting from the original promise to Abraham and Sarah to the final fulfillment in Jesus looks like alchemy.  Somehow, God worked the base materials of deceit, failure, rebellion, rejection, brokenness, barrenness, sin and seduction into the minted gold of salvation and the promise fulfilled.

Let me show you what I mean.  I think Matthew was gawping at this too.  When he gets just three verses into his story about the birth of Jesus, he mentions Tamar,[3] one of the people pouring genes into the gene stream flowing between Abraham and Jesus.  Remember her?[4]  She was married to a guy named Er, the great-great-grandson of Abraham.  So we’re only four generations removed from the original promise.  Er was evil, so God took his life.  (Yeah, that kinda made me pause too.) According to Israelite ethics, then, Er’s brother, Onan, should have married Tamar to provide her with a chance to have kids.  And this is exactly what Judah, the father of Er and Onan, suggested.  But Onan was worried that providing an heir for Tamar and his dead brother would cause competition for his own heirs, so he refused to help her make babies.  So God took him too.  Everyone knew that Judah, the father-in-law, and his family had a responsibility to provide financially for Tamar and to provide a legitimate husband so that she’d have a shot at kids.  Ducking his responsibilities but trying to save face, Judah sent Tamar back to live with her own family and promised her that once his younger son, Shelah, was old enough he’d marry Tamar.  That’s what Judah promised.  Unlike God, though, he had no intention of keeping the promise.

Cruel years passed by, Shelah grew up, and the promise was never kept.  Tamar, out of desperation, decided to take matters into her own hands.  She disguised herself as a prostitute and waited on the road that she knew Judah would be taking on the way to annual sheep shearing.  Evidently she judged him well, because he stopped and propositioned her, not realizing she was his daughter-in-law.  But, he didn’t have any cash on him to pay for the full-service massage, so he promised another delayed payment–a goat to be sent from his flock.  Not one to be fooled twice, Tamar insisted that he give her a security until the full payment could be made.  She asked him for his seal, his cord and his staff as a pledge.

Eventually, Judah did send a goat to the prostitute who had his security pledge.  The prostitute was nowhere to be seen.  About this time word came to Judah that his daughter-in-law had been playing a prostitute and consequently was pregnant.  To purge the shame from his family, he ordered that she be burned.  Before she could be executed, though, Tamar pulled out the seal, cord and staff and announced that they belonged to the john.  When Judah recognized his belongings, he relented and Tamar lived to give birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.

Even if you watch a lot of soaps, you’ve got to admit that is a pretty messed-up story.  A lying, cheating father-in-law who refuses to take care of his widowed daughter-in-law but eagerly takes advantage of women on the road.  A desperate, cunning woman who is willing to seduce the dad of her two dead husbands to get pregnant.  And these are Jesus’ gene pool.  These are the sort of lives and stories that stand between the promise and the fulfillment.  But under the gravitational pull of God’s promise, these are the sort of lives and stories that get melded into the fulfillment.  It doesn’t so much matter what God has to work with–diamonds or dog turds–he still is the alchemist who can bring a savior from a line of sinners.

That’s one of the things we’re going to attend to in Advent this year: the power of God’s promise to take our sinful, broken, sorry little stories and to give them dignity and redemption by writing them into the great story of His rescue and healing of the world through his son, Jesus.  Maybe it was a thought something like that which spilled out in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, saying, “For He took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.”[5]  Maybe that’s what her cousin, Elizabeth, was thinking when she exclaimed, “How kind the Lord is.  He has taken away my disgrace.”[6]

But the power of God’s promise doesn’t extend only to those who happened to live between the times of Abraham and Jesus.  Jesus is the “yes” to God’s promise echoing in both directions through time.  That’s why Paul, writing to a group of suffering Christians in Corinth, years after Jesus was gone, reminds them that even in the midst of suffering they could stand firm in Christ, because they could know God would keep his promise to redeem them in Christ. How could they know?  How can we know?  It is as if Paul anticipated that very question.  He says they could stand firm in Christ, banking on God’s promise because, in the Holy Spirit, God had given them his seal and security pledge.  Sound familiar?  The other time ‘seal’ and ‘pledge’ occur side-by-side in the Bible is in the salacious vignette about Tamar and Judah.  Paul is evoking that story on purpose.  He is saying you can go to the bank on God’s promises.  If you have received His Holy Spirit, you can bet the farm He’s going to fulfill his promise of redeeming you.  The promise of redemption might seem distant and laughable right now–like the first promise did when Tamar was dressed as a hooker and taking her father-in-law’s seal as a pledge–but just as surely as that story became part of the greater story of the fulfillment of the promise of Christ, so too will our base, sinful, struggling stories be transformed by the Alchemist into one great story of the return and triumph of Christ.

So, this Advent as you feel the heavy need of Christ’s return in the cold reality of your sin and struggle, do so with confident hope.  Tamar’s tawdry tale became the prologue to a Gospel.  No matter how sorry your circumstances or how base your story, if you have received the pledge of the Spirit of Christ, your life will be rewritten into the story of Jesus’ triumph with all the certainty of gravity.


[1] Revelation 3:14

[2] 2 Corinthians 1:20

[3] Matthew 1:3

[4] Genesis 38

[5] Luke 1:48

[6] Luke 1:25

image by kevissimo

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